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Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: 9 Great Horror Stories About Kids (That Are Definitely Not For Kids)

Written by Matthew Lyons

Most of us remember the special kind of terror that comes with being a kid. The world is too big, you’re too small, nothing makes sense yet, and you’re ultimately powerless to stop it or really change anything. There’s nothing quite like it, except for maybe being a character in a horror story.

Kids are really a perfect personification of the vulnerability and powerlessness that horror as a genre runs on, which is probably why some of the very best scary stories in the world feature them. But just because these stories are about kids doesn’t mean they’re for kids. After all, no kid should have to go through what Danny Torrence went through at the Overlook Hotel. No group of children should be expected to endure what the schoolboys endured (and caused) on the island in Lord of the Flies.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Sometimes, it’s the kids you really have to look out for. Sometimes, those kids aren’t nearly as powerless and vulnerable as they might seem.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US IT – Stephen King

Truth be told, this whole list could probably be filled with examples from the King’s bibliography (looking at you here, Salem’s Lot, Rage, The Long Walk, The Body, The Institute, and Firestarter), but why not go with the best? The story of the Losers gets better and better the older I get, with the childhood sections becoming both more dreamily nostalgic and painfully real. The horrors on display in this doorstopper of a novel are multitudinous, but their immediacy is never quite so harrowing as when you see them through the eyes (and at the hands) of the pre-teens at the book’s core. Pennywise is all well and good, but truth be told, it was always Henry Bowers who scared the absolute hell out of me.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Baby Teeth – Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage’s excellent debut novel is one of those books that stays with you, whether you want it to or not. I’m a sucker for a good story about a psychopath, but when that selfsame psychopath is your mute-by-choice seven-year-old daughter who wants you dead, the terror grows by orders of magnitude. Listen, I’m not a parent, but thanks to Zoje Stage’s nightmarishly good novel, it turns out that I don’t have to be to understand that kind of sheer, inescapable horror. Capital-F Fear fills every page of this book, and it shook me down to my deepest core. I defy you to read it and not think twice about ever having kids.

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Let the Right One In (novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2008 movie by Tomas Alfredson, or both)

Let the Right One In is a story about two kids: one who’s a weary, bloodthirsty little monster with an overpowering need to do harm to others, and another who’s a literal vampire. Eli might spend her nights hunting, slaughtering and devouring shitfaced townies, but Oskar, who starts the story off already fantasizing about murder – is far, far worse than her. While Eli is a fascinating (and altogether tragic) character, at its heart, this story belongs to Oskar, and his irreversible journey into darkness, no matter how much like love it might look.

The Last Of UsBuy from Amazon US The Last of Us (PS4)

Before the highly polarizing sequel (which, while flawed, does, in fact, rule) came out earlier this year, there was just The Last of Us, a postapocalyptic horror story about a jaded old smuggler and a shockingly-profane fourteen-year-old girl enacting swaths of grisly ultraviolence on pretty much everything that crosses their path. This game is a modern classic for a reason: it’s a marvelous examination of morality in the face of love, and of innocence not just lost, but set on fire and then thrown off of a crumbling high-rise roof. Joel might be the protagonist of the story, but Ellie, with all her anger and confusion and wonder, is its living soul.

The Good SonBuy from Amazon US The Good Son (1993)

Three years after Home Alone came out (and only a year after the sequel), unsuspecting moviegoing audiences everywhere got a movie that straight-up weaponized Macaulay Culkin against the them. Violent, manipulative and calculating, Culkin’s Henry reads like a cruel deconstruction of our beloved Kevin McAllister – a strange-yet-charming kid with all of the zany (and likely lethal) hijinks, yet none of the humor, innocence, or hope. Let’s face facts: in the real world, Kevin McCallister isn’t the hero of the story – Kevin’s little baby HH Holmes. Henry is just what you get when Kevin gets bored. The Good Son isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but when it gets it right, it’s pretty goddamned chilling.

Among The SleepBuy from Amazon US Among the Sleep (PS4, Xbox One, Steam, Nintendo Switch)

To be totally honest with you, I legitimately have a hard time recommending anyone play Among the Sleep because it is harrowing and disturbing in ways that I’ve never seen done anywhere else, but the story is so damn well done that I couldn’t possibly leave it out. A survival horror game as seen through the eyes of an innocent, terrified two-year old, there are twists and turns here that are better left unspoiled. Just play it, throw yourself bodily into it, but don’t blame me when it scares the shit out of you and then breaks your fucking heart.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix, 2020)

Dear god, I’m so glad this world has Mike Flanagan. After the sheer brilliance that was The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep, my expectations for the second installment of The Haunting were pretty high, but naturally it was an absolute knockout. Slower, stranger, and sadder than its predecessor, The Haunting of Bly Manor excels at many, many things, but foremost among them might just be the ongoing question of what the hell is going on with the Wingrave kids? Flora and Miles are both creepy as hell – for very different reasons – and the mysteries surrounding them are expertly wrought, if both horrifying and ultimately pretty tragic.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Sour Candy – Kealan Patrick Burke

Oh, ill-tempered kids throwing screaming tantrums in the middle of superstores, is there anything worse? If Kealan Patrick Burke is to be believed, yes. Yes, there really, really is. There were so many points in this novella that made me physically recoil and say “Nope!” that it’s hard to list them all. Gleefully dark and disturbing all the way through with a story that turns a little bit toward the cosmic, Sour Candy is tense as all hell and all the better for it. It’s legitimately frightening in a way that few novellas are, but perhaps especially because the setup to all the unhinged madness that follows is so deceptively goddamned ordinary.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Like Stephen King, so. damn. much. of Guillermo del Toro’s work would be a great fit for this list. The Devil’s Backbone is the story of Carlos, the new kid at the Santa Lucia School and Orphanage near the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, and while ultimately a ghost tale, like every great Guillermo del Toro movie, it’s the humans that you really have to watch out for. Resident bully Jaime, angry little sociopath that he is, almost reads like a Spanish equivalent of Henry Bowers; groundskeeper Jacinto is broken, angry and unpredictably cruel. The ghost at the core of the film is horrifying and heartbreaking, but what it represents makes it clear that people will always be the real monsters.

Horror DNA would like to thank Matthew for sharing this great list with us! Make sure to pick up his latest novel, The Night Will Find Us by clicking on one of the links below.

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Matthew Lyons is the author of the novel The Night Will Find Us, as well as over three dozen short stories, appearing in the 2018 edition of Best American Short Stories (edited by Roxane Gay), Tor Nightfire's Come Join Us By The Fire (Season 2) and more. Born in Colorado, he lives in Denver with his wife and their cat. He can be found haunting Twitter and Instagram at @cannibalghosts.


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